More by happy coincidence than design, last Thursday I found myself stumbling into the Frida Kahlo retrospective at the Tate Modern. My colleagues and I were in
London for a work-related awards bash and, having time to kill, we decided to brave the Tate. It is but the briefest hop, skip and jump across the
St Paul‘s cathedral and smack-bang next door to Shakespeare’s rebuilt Globe Theatre – a prodigy in itself, with what must be the first and certainly the most interesting-looking thatched roof in central
London for centuries.
Anyway, having got there (the Tate), my colleagues – professing their ignorance of Kahlo and her work – settled for the permanent galleries. But me – sensing the presence of serious art – sailed straight for La Kahlo. Truth is, I’d been itching to stand face to face with her canvasses for years. And I was not about to let this opportunity pass me by. Come hell, high water, the occasional bomb or even – for that matter – a poxy old awards ceremony. And the show was a treat. The art critic of The Sunday Times – probably Waldemar Januszczak – recently did Kahlo the great disservice of stating in print that her canvasses looked no different on the printed page than they do hanging on the walls. That was such an insult. And wholly untrue. As those of you who visit the galleries will know, there is simply no substitute for standing face-to-face with the painted canvas. And books-of-the-pictures-of-the-t-shirt-of-the-film do not provide an adequate alternative to The Real Thing.
I could bang on about Kahlo for ages – the narcissism, the physical agony sublimated into and expressed through her work, the tremendous sense of shared humanity, the (genuine or cultivated?) artistic naivety. To put it into the proverbial nutshell, there is no experience in this world quite like standing in the centre of a room with self-portraits of Frida Kahlo lining all four walls, and having them all stare straight at you. I have never felt quite so looked at, nor quite so looked into, for that matter. At one point, I chose to take my attention away from her and look instead at the other gallery visitors. But there was no escape. Whether peeking around the back of someone else’s head, or staring straight through the gap between two peoples’ heads, Frida Kahlo’s gaze would not leave me alone. She looks at you, and she demands that you look back. It really is that simple. Her gaze is challenging; proud in a proletarian sort of way – bordering upon the surly; it is also humorous, honest, direct and very knowing. The self-portraits are the thing. And Ms Kahlo never tired of painting herself. In fact it was precisely because the printed images are no substitute for the painted canvasses that I did not buy the exhibition catalogue. Paintings live on best in the eye of the mind. And I could not, with a book of printed pictures, repeat the experience of standing in the centre of that aforementioned room.
Incidentally, one of the highlights of this exhibition is not actually in the exhibition at all. It is a giant photo-montage of Frida, at different ages and at different stages of her life and career, which covers the whole of one wall of the cafeteria on Level 4 of the Tate. It was there that I found myself staring at the large black and white photograph of a raven-haired and strikingly handsome young man. Was this her brother, I wondered? But no. It was in fact a photograph of Frida herself. Taken in 1926, she had dressed herself from head to foot as a man, for a family portrait. What a rare soul.
Sadly, and probably also because I did not buy the exhibition catalogue, I am largely ignorant of the substance of her life. Although I do have a brief sketch of the outlines. Marxist politics (not my cup of tea); married Diego Rivera, another artist and political activist; suffered, when young, an horrendous accident which left her in constant physical pain for the rest of her days; numerous operations to repair damage done by same; lower right leg removed towards the end of her life; death possibly by suicide.
If anyone who knows more can add more or, indeed, correct my errors – then please do so.
Those of you who can get down to the show, do. And for those of you who cannot, I hope the above has at least given you a flavour of it.